Nutanix customers weigh in on "invisible infrastructure" and overcoming IT bottlenecks

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed June 12, 2015
What could IT do for the business if it was "unburdened" from infrastructure management chores? During a lively panel and subsequent conversations, Nutanix customers gave me a clear sense of how their IT workloads are changing - and what the concerns are.

With a company expanding as aggressively as Nutanix, I want to hear from customers. Do they agree with the product roadmap? Specifically in the case of Nutanix, is the move from invisible storage to "invisible infrastructure" and beyond in line with customer pain points?

I had my chance to find out this week at Nutanix NEXT, the companies' first ever user conference. With almost 1,000 attendees present, I was able to get a gut check on these questions, though a few customers wisely slipped away to the beach before I could corner them.

One revealing event  was a customer panel during the opening keynote, moderated by Raymond Paquet, managing vice president at Gartner Research (The customer panel is not yet available on replay, but Nutanix has posted the second half of the opening keynote on YouTube),

Modernizing IT varies - but disruption is a constant

For Maurice van Veghel, CIO of the Netherlands-based Sligro Food Group, it's all about becoming more relevant to the business - while supporting 2,500 users. Sligro's advanced usage of Nutanix speaks directly to this goal.  Ven Veghel described his IT mission in very similar terms to what Nutanix laid out this week; he wants back office IT operations to become invisible:

The [right] technology makes it possible for me to be a trusted advisor for business, and that’s what I want to be. Everybody just wants technology to work. If you can do that, it makes it viable to go to your business and say, "We’re ready to help you," - and they believe you.

As Bob Orkis, CIO, Fairway Independent Mortgage told us, Fairway is "just getting started" with their IT transformation. In their case, mobile is causing a disrupt-or-be-disrupted impact. If Fairway makes good on their digital transition, they can flip the model: instead of borrowers being referred by realtors, borrowers will download Fairways' app, use it to search for a house, and contact Fairway Independent Mortgage directly. Then Fairway can develop their own referral stream to realtors. Easy enough? Only if the right infrastructure and right apps are built.

Sanjay Terakanambi VP, IT Infrastructure Services at Best Buy, spoke to the predicaments of an intensely competitive retail environment. Terakanambi's number one priority? Agility. And with that comes the demand for modern infrastructure:

In the retail world, the ability to be agile is central. We’re adding new features and functionality on a daily basis, and infrastructure cannot be a bottleneck in that process... For us, the focus has been delivering infrastructure in a highly efficient manner. We have a "virtualization first" mantra. Any app that gets built gets put in a virtual environment first, unless we can justify building it on a physical environment.

We’ve deployed a hybrid cloud solutions, which allows us to roll out servers in a fully automated fashion in minutes, rather than days or weeks. We still have work to do automating the entire infrastructure at scale, but I think we are going in the right direction with partners like Nutanix.

Start small -> get wins -> build momentum

Fairfield Independent Mortage started by moving their virtual environment (Citrix on desktop) to Nutanix. They soon built up to supporting 1,000 users on Nutanix, with plans to move to 2,500 soon. As Orkis told the assembled users:

The way our implementation at Nutanix has gone so far:  we put it in, install it in a day or two. It's unbelievably easy to manage and control, and we can grow at incremental steps. It's changed our whole data center model and plan drastically. We started out with VDI, but right now we don’t have anything that’s off limits; we’re just gradually migrating.

Terakanambi's team at Best Buy has taken their "hyperconvergence" project further than some. They've already standardized their virtual infrastructure, primarily on Nutanix. Next up: virtualizing their Microsoft SQL database:

Like Bob [Orkis] said, I don’t believe there isn’t a workload that can't be virtualized today, so we’re pushing the envelope... Our next goal is to consolidate our Oracle database environments. Some of these things are not only critical from a stability and service delivery point of view, but managing our license costs as well.

Challenge ahead - the team's skills must transform along with the stack:

We will continue to move away from traditional server building. Our engineers will become automation engineers, writing the next set of scripts to automate the infrastructure stack... The possibilities are endless, we just have to continuously adapt to the changes that are happening, and choose the best platform.

Sligo's experience with Nutanix also began with a VDI use case. The goal? To provide all 2,500 users with a new virtual desktop infrastructure. Ven Veghel's team looked at other vendors, but ultimately decided to "try something new." They began with a proof of concept, and soon rolled out their VDI infrastructure on Nutanix. But Ven Veghel wasn't done with Nutanix yet:

Then the tech guys came to me and said, 'Why not build our complete back back office of 2.6 billion Euros on Nutanix?'

Ven Veghel told the audience that at first, he wasn't ready to put transactional machines on Nutanix, but over time, everything is moving in that direction:

Providing 5,000 users of IT tech on Nutanix was the next case. I’m rolling all this out right now: all applications, all VDI infrastructure, Exchange, storage and compute files - all on Nutanix.

The customer dialogue - honest feedback for the win

Nutanix customer panel

When Paquet asked the panel for feedback on Nutanix's direction, the panel didn't hold back.   Terakanambi has learned the hard way that when vendors add too many features to existing components, process instability is a risk factor:  We'd also encourage Nnutanix stay true to the core products that they have, not try to be everything to everybody."

Ven Veghel reinforced the point, literally getting out of his chair to address the audience:

A year ago, went to this technology. My technical guys said choose Nutanix, I did. Now I’m the CIO, with all the back office of  a 2.6 billion Euros company on this tech, so I want them to stay disruptive as they are, but I also want them to, be consistent, because I”m a customer now.

Ven Veghel went on to quip that as a Dutch retailer, competitive pricing, including Nutanix pricing, was always top of mind. Orkis echoed the pricing point, before recommending a greater variation of mix and match options between processing and storage.

Orkis' final point? Get the word out. He wants the customer base to expand until Nutanix is a tech household name:

[We chose Nutanix] largely because someone I knew in the industry who had done this kind of thing with a couple of companies recommended them. Without that, I probably wouldn’t be here today... We have to figure out how to get the word out, make it a more well known name than it is today.

Final thoughts

I can't see a reason why Nutanix can't expand their offerings while maintaining stability and security, but it was a point customers felt strongly about. One Nutanix product lead told me that they do leave functionality out sometimes to preserve the simplicity (the easy UI is one of Nutanix' defining strengths).

Whether it was Ven Veghel literally jumping out of his keynote chair, or a customer pulling me aside after a video shoot to make clear how much Nutanix means to his company, Nutanix customers are a passionate lot. I think the stability-of-features comments underscore just how much customers want to keep the edge they have achieved.

Ven Veghel told the audience he felt "unburdened" by the technology. That phrase stuck with me. If CIOs can truly unburden themselves from the infrastructure payload, then perhaps there is hope for the IT/business partnership after all.

Ven Veghel called this a "massive change for data center architecture," going on to joke: "I have some space left." Speaking of the so-called "hyperconvergence" of storage/networks/infrastructure that Nutanix is instigating, Orkis said it's been a "phenomenal change" from IT turf wars, and finger-pointing over failures on one system that impacted another.

Just how many customers sign on with Nutanix remains to be seen; that comes down to execution. But for now, it's fair to say that Nutanix is provoking a conversation IT needs to be having.

Note: see also my interview with Nutanix CEO Dheeraj Pandey on post-legacy IT: “Never buy big stuff again”

Image credit: Conference photos by Jon Reed. Head shots of the executives features are via the photos they've posted on their Twitter or LinkedIn profiles.

Disclosure: Nutanix paid the bulk of my travel expenses to attend Nutanix .NEXT in Miami.

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